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Inscaping: the poetry within Stirling's buildings

University of Leicester Engineering Building by Stirling and Gowan
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Thomas Pearson, senior designer and conservationist at Arup, considers the parallels between Stirling and Gowan’s architecture and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry

There is no precise meaning to the term ‘inscape’, used as both verb and noun by the 19th-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, although he referred to it both as an inherent quality witnessed in nature and a kind of underlying shape or order in his own writing. ‘Design, pattern, or what I am in the habit of calling inscape is what I above all aim at in poetry’ – this, written to his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges, is probably the closest we come to his own definition.

Hopkins saw inscape most clearly in the details of nature – in the ‘dapple-dawn-drawn’ falcon, the ‘rash-fresh, re-winded, new-skeinèd’ song of the skylark, in ‘torn tufts’ of cloud; in ‘all things counter, original, spare, strange’ – and many of his poems are a record of his observations. Studying a scene to identify its inscape could be a long and solitary process, but in time its vibrant ordering principles might be discerned.

Hopkins also inscaped in architecture, and indeed the terms he uses to describe the unorthodox structures of his writing are often architectural in origin. As well as filling his notebooks with sketches of fan vaults and tracery, and peppering his writing with architectural words, he saw an exciting ambiguity in building, which sat comfortably with the natural nuances and plasticity of his poetry. For me – a poet and architectural conservationist – these intersections are very appealing indeed.

Manley Hopkins saw an exciting ambiguity in building, which sat comfortably with the natural nuances and plasticity of his poetry

Hopkins’ admiration for the architecture of William Butterfield is particularly fascinating. Like Hopkins, Butterfield was strikingly unconventional and often roundly scorned by his contemporaries. On seeing Butterfield’s church of All Saints in Babbacombe, Hopkins noted that ‘it is odd and the oddness at first sight outweighed the beauty,’ but ‘everything very solid and perfect … medallions by east window/alternate inscapes – all five-spoked wheels or roses – odd.’ Oddness was a quality to be cherished, within certain limits: Martin Dubois argues that ‘Hopkins’ appreciation of Butterfield was rooted in a belief in the value of originality and uniqueness in form – though one which must interact with and which acknowledges traditional precedents.’

I like to think Hopkins would have found a similar joy in the work of the architects James Stirling and James Gowan, whose Engineering Building at the University of Leicester is undergoing major refurbishment work this year. I have worked on the conservation of this building for many years, and in the process have become familiar with its shabbiest qualities – even the most poetic architecture can become prosaic at times. But for all its tattiness, eccentricities, obscurities and flaws, it retains an incredible sense of power, and of inscape.

There is a controlled wildness to its collisions of angles and planes, and a sense of purposeful indeterminacy – of inquiry – in the way the different volumes interact. Weight and mass are delicately handled, with the extreme heaviness of the blank tiled lecture theatre blocks set against arpeggiating facets of glass and the sensational crystal box that houses the workshops.

It is, as Gowan stated himself, essentially Gothic – or, more specifically, what Hopkins called ‘modern spontaneous Gothic’, with roots in the 19th century when Leicester was at its industrial peak. This aspect increasingly comes to the fore in my own attempts at ‘inscaping’ the place. Aside from the obviously steeple-like thrust of the tower, I see the squat skirt at the ground plane, the flying buttresses over the service road to the rear, projecting gargoyle spouts, pattern-ribbed soffits, dark corners, crooked pathways, with runs of diaper diamonds as decorative relief. There is a dominance of pointed forms, a sense of craning-over, a lack of symmetry. ‘Above the wall / The sumptuous ridge-crest leave to poise and ride.’

In April 1961, while the Engineering Building was being designed, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space; in December of the same year demolition began on the Euston Arch. These two facts set Stirling and Gowan’s achievement in even sharper focus: for it to embody the dynamism of the space age, with its chimney and towers blasting off for the moon, and still draw so heavily from the English tradition of 19th-century industry and churchmanship at a time when care for Victorian heritage was at an all-time low, is a monumental triumph of intelligent, referential design.

Stirling and Gowan’s partnership ended shortly after the building was completed, ostensibly due to a disagreement over the design of a new Faculty of History for the University of Cambridge. Stirling was determined to reuse the language of red bricks and glass, so tailored to the situation at Leicester, as an abstract response to the Cambridge brief. His partner disagreed strongly – and I have to say I’m with Gowan on this one.

University of Leicester Engineering Building by Stirling and Gowan

University of Leicester Engineering Building by Stirling and Gowan

Stirling went on to deliver an uncompromising, rigorous building, but one at odds with the city’s built heritage and genteel scale. The deft touch of the Leicester assemblage is missing. This building is essentially one bold geometrical statement, from which everything else is derived. If the Engineering Building is a High Victorian pile, this is an Enlightenment parable, a super-sized Jeremy Bentham diagram. I have crawled through all its nooks and crannies – measuring, photographing, observing – and beyond that big idea I struggle to find any satisfying patterns. That said, the reading room is genuinely thrilling. I could sit all day in this panopticon, watching the steelwork shadows on the huge pearly glazed expanse of the roof. 

And so we come to Oxford – so formative a place for Hopkins, where he had a keen interest in the wave of new college construction in his day. I was a student at Queen’s, which has no significant Victorian buildings and which may have left Hopkins rather uninspired with its austere Classical ranges, derived from (though tamer than) Nicholas Hawksmoor’s original designs in the early 1700s. Hopkins was very fond of the city overall, though, and despaired at the ‘base and brickish skirt’ that threatened the consistency of its honey-coloured stone core. I can’t imagine it was Butterfield’s startling brickwork at Keble College that offended him as much as the massed housing and industrial buildings of its rapidly growing suburbs. Similarly I think he would have loved the Florey Building – the third in Stirling’s red sequence, my home for a year at Queen’s, and now another project.

Florey’s oddness and inscape is in seclusion and tranquillity. Its space-race undertones are clear again, but less literal than the three great engines at Cambridge. Its exterior is hard and unfamiliar (‘the rack of ribs; the scooped flank; lank / Rope-over thigh; knee-nave’), while its splayed quad and cloister are well-known Oxford types, albeit distorted. There are shades of Butterfield again: a small but purposeful counterbalance to Keble. But there is a definite Renaissance feel here, with Italian fused to the English medieval. It may not seem so at first but this classical air, absent at Leicester and too dominant at Cambridge, is warm, particularly with the curious ochre paintwork inside – Tuscan, maybe? – and certainly fits the college’s architectural traditions.

It is a building of fragmentary motion, of geometry, sight and sense. It captures something of Hopkins’ obsession with optics and vision, of observing and being observed, and finishes the view from every room with a peaceful scene of trees, river, meadow, and spires beyond. ‘Bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded.’

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